The Circus Comes to Town

If you lived in small town America in the 20th century, it was a big deal when the circus came to town with its entourage of clowns, acrobats and exotic animals from distant lands.

April 19, 1930 cover by Gardner Rea.

Even New Yorkers, it seems — who could be quite blasé about such things — got a thrill when the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus rolled into town for its annual spectacle at Madison Square Garden. The New Yorker marked the occasion with its April 12 cover by Theodore Haupt:

For the April 19 issue, E.B. White welcomed the circus on a cautionary note, airing concerns in his “Notes and Comment” column that this old-timey entertainment might be falling under the “base influences” of broadcast radio, Broadway, and Hollywood:

SEND IN THE…YOU KNOW…THOSE GUYS…Top, clowns in town for the 1931 Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden. Below, circus poster announcing the arrival of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  (potterauctions.com)

José Schorr, who wrote a number of humorous columns in the New Yorker from 1926 to 1930 on the subject of “how to the pass the time” in various situations, offered this advice on attending the spectacle at Madison Square Garden…

I’D RATHER BE FLYING…1930 poster advertising “The Human Projectile”; 1931 photo of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden. (worthpoint.com/bidsquare.com)

…for example, Schorr advised circus-goers to pass the time by considering the inner lives of performers such as “The Human Projectile”…

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Funny Farm

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Joe Cook (1890-1950), but in the 1920s and 30s he was a household name and one of America’s most popular comedic performers. “Talk of the Town” looked in on his antics at his Lake Hopatcong farm, “Sleepless Hollow”…

BATTER UP…Comedian Joe Cook’s residence at Lake Hopatcong, NJ, was known for its celebrity-studded parties. At left, Babe Ruth takes a swing with a giant bat on Cook’s wacky three-hole golf course; at right, Cook relaxing on the steps of his farm. (lakehopatcongnews.com)

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Fun With Balloon Animals

One thing that distinguishes the 1930s from today is that era’s apparent lack of safety standards, or fear of liability. A case in point was Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which began a tradition in the late 1920s of releasing its giant balloons into the sky at the conclusion of the parade — a $50 reward was offered by Macy’s for their return. “The Talk of the Town” explained:

GOING, GOING, GONE…When Felix the Cat (left, in 1927) was released after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, it floated into a power line and caught fire; in 1931 the parade’s Big Blue Hippo (right) was apparently spotted floating over the ocean, never to be seen again. (Macy’s/hatchingcatnyc.com)

Perhaps the craziest anecdote attached to the parade’s annual balloon release belonged to Annette Gipson. While flying a biplane at 5,000 feet with her instructor, she spotted the parade’s 60-foot “Tom Cat” balloon rising high above Queens. Looking to have a bit of fun, the 22-year-old Gipson flew the plane directly into the cat. According to the book Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, “Upon impact, the balloon wrapped itself around the left wing. The plane went into a deep tailspin (nearly throwing Gipson from the cockpit) and sped toward the ground out of control.” Fearing the plane would catch fire when it hit the ground, the instructor killed the ignition, and somehow managed to pull the plane out of the spin and land it safely at Roosevelt Field.

KITTY LITTER…Annette Gipson, right, nearly killed herself and her flight instructor after she deliberately crashed her biplane into a Tom Cat balloon (left) that had been released following the 1932 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Of her near-death experience,Gipson told reporters, “It was a sensation that I never felt before—the whirling housetops, rushing up to meet me—and the thoughts of a whole lifetime flashed through my mind.” (ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

A footnote: Following Gipson’s brush with death, Macy’s announced it would not give prize money to those who tried to down the balloons with their airplanes. The incident also brought an end to the company’s tradition of releasing the balloons.

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Birth of the Soundtrack

Songs from popular theater productions were first made available to the masses in the mid-19th century via printed sheet music and later through early recordings. Part of this lineage is the movie soundtrack, which has its origins in the early days of sound pictures. According to the New Yorker’s “Popular Records” column, these new recordings would bring the talkies into your home, albeit without the picture…

FROM MAMMY TO MAMMA MIA…Left, a 1930 Brunswick 78 RPM recording of Al Jolson’s “To My Mammy”; at right, soundtrack from the 2008 film Mamma Mia! (popsike.com/amazon.com)

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Cosmo Calvin

Before Helen Gurley Brown came along in the 1960s and sexed it up, Cosmopolitan was known as a somewhat bland literary magazine, and it was certainly bland enough in 1930 to welcome the scribblings of America’s blandest president to its pages. E.B. White mused in his “Notes”…

NOTHING COMES BETWEEN ME AND MY CALVIN…At left, the May 1930 issue of Cosmopolitan; Kourtney Kardashian on the cover of the October 2016 issue. (Pinterest/Cosmopolitan)

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How Dry I Am

After a decade of living under Prohibition, John Ogden Whedon (1905-1991) put pen to paper and shared his sentiments in a poem for the New Yorker

…Whedon would go on to a successful career as a screenwriter, especially finding acclaim for his television writing on The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, among others. He was also the grandfather of screenwriter and director Joseph “Joss” Whedon and screenwriters Jed Whedon and Zack Whedon.

Another poem in the April 19 issue was contributed by John Held Jr., who was perhaps better known to New Yorker readers for his “woodcut” cartoons…

…example of Held’s work from the April 12 issue, featured in an Old Gold advertisement…

…and that provides a segue into our ads for the April 19 issue, beginning with this spot for an early electric dishwasher…

Here’s what that bad boy looks like in color. (automaticwasher.org)

…I couldn’t find a review in the New Yorker for Emily Hahn’s new book, Seductio Ad Absurdum, but her publisher did take out an ad to get the attention of readers. Many years later the New Yorker would call the journalist and author “a forgotten American literary treasure”…

Emily Hahn circa 1930; first edition of Seductio Ad Absurdum. Author of 52 books, her writings played a significant role in opening up Asia to the West.(shanghaitours.canalblog.com/swansfinebooks.com)

…and here we have another sumptuous ad from illustrator Carl “Eric” Erickson, a far cry from the “Joe Camel” ads that would come along decades later…

…on to our cartoons, Reginald Marsh offered a blue collar perspective on city fashions…

Alice Harvey captured a moment of reflection by an overworked housewife…

…and I. Klein looked in on a couple of working stiffs in need of a dictionary…

…now over to the posh set, with Barbara Shermund

Leonard Dove found humor on the chorus line…

…and we end with this terrific cartoon by Peter Arno, and the perils of apartment life…

Next Time: Paramount on Parade…

 

 

 

Learning To Be Modern

On March 1, 1930, the Empire State Building was still just a bunch of sketches and blueprints, as was much of the yet-to-be-built modern cityscape of Manhattan. But as the Depression slowly worked its gnarled fingers into the American landscape, some still dreamed of the sleek, streamlined world to come.

March 1, 1930 cover by Rea Irvin.

The New Yorker’s architecture critic, George S. Chappell, kept readers apprised of changes on the city’s skyline, as well as of the trends in modern design that were being displayed at various exhibitions including one held annually by the city’s Architectural League. Chappell observed:

A GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE…Opening pages of the Architectural League’s 45th Annual Exhibition, featuring an image of the Empire State Building. Construction had just begun on the iconic building at the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. (mullenbooks.com)

The exhibition featured a variety of projects, from the Aluminaire House in Long Island to Boardman Robinson’s murals in Pittsburgh to Bertram Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol featuring Lee Lawrie’s sculptures and friezes…

ECLECTIC…Model of the Aluminaire House erected in full scale for the 45th Annual Exhibition of the Architectural League of New York; Boardman Robinson’s The History of Trade murals in Kaufmann’s Department Store, Pittsburgh; detail of one of Boardman’s 10 murals displayed at Kaufmann’s; Lee Lawrie’s “The Sower,” a 19-foot-tall bronze statue mounted on top of Bertram Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln. In 1937 Lawrie would install his “Atlas” sculpture in front of Rockefeller Center. (archleague.org/archive.triblive.com/capitol.nebraska.gov)

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And Now For Something Old

While George Chappell contemplated the world to come, “The Talk of Town” looked back in time to Greenwich Village’s oldest drugstore…

FORM FOLLOWED FUNCTION…Quackenbush Pharmacy in 1930. Manager James Todd at right. (Library of Congress)

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Pet Project

The March 1 issue featured James Thurber’s second installment of “Our Pet Department”…

And while Thurber was doling out pet advice, his pal E.B. White was worrying over changes to the design of the Shredded Wheat box…

HORSELESS CARRIAGES replaced animal power on the packages of Shredded Wheat, much to the dismay of E.B. White. (oldshopstuff.com)

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A Prince of a Guy

A refugee from the Bolshevik Revolution, the Georgian Prince Matchabelli (Guéorgui Vassilievitch Matchabelli) was penniless when he landed on American shores in 1924. Two years later he launched a perfume business with three scents  — Ave Maria, Princess Norina, and Queen of Georgia — sold in bottles that were said to be small replicas of the Prince’s lost Georgian crown. “The Talk of the Town” paid the royal perfumer a visit for the March 1 issue:

HIS CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT…A bottle of Princess Norina perfume from 1926, and its creator, Prince Matchabelli. (Pinterest/Wikipedia)

Those who were around the late 1970s and 1980s no doubt recall the Prince Matchabelli Windsong Perfume commercials and the catchy tune that kind of stuck in your head (for better or worse)…

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Low Life Revue

Ben Hecht continued his exploration of the hardboiled world of journalists, bootleggers, nightclub singers and other lowlifes in his screenplay for Roadhouse Nights, a film that was apparently enjoyed by New Yorker film critic John Mosher. As for Hecht, an erstwhile member of the Algonquin Round Table and occasional contributor to the New Yorker in the 1920s, the film was just one of many to follow in a Hollywood career that the former Chicago journalist held in some disdain (see recent New Yorker article by David Denby)…

IT’S MOIDER, I SAY…Helen Morgan, Eddie Jackson Jimmy Durante, Fred Kohler, and Lou Clayton in 1930’s Roadhouse Nights. (IMDB)

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The Winds of Wynn

Ed Wynn wowed theater critic Robert Benchley in his portrayal of “Simple Simon” at the Ziegfeld Theatre. Wynn was one of the most popular comedians of his time, but is best known today for his portrayal of “Uncle Albert” in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins

AGELESS…Ed Wynn in Simple Simon, 1930; at right as Uncle Albert in 1964’s Mary Poppins. (secondhandsongs.com/Pinterest)

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He Was No Palooka

The March 1 and 9 issues of the New Yorker gave considerable ink to Niven Busch Jr’s success story of a middleweight prizefighter. Titled “K.O. Middleweight,” the two-part article was about Stanislas Kalnins, who went by the name K.O. Keenen because it would go over better with the large majority of Irishmen at the fights. Peter Arno provided the art for the piece:

From Our Advertisers

We have another ad from the Franklin motorcar company touting its air-cooled engines, which thanks to the Depression were not long for the world…

…Saks shamelessly appealed to the “poor” little rich girl in this ad aimed at aspiring debutantes…

…Lenthric perfumes offered this all-French ad to those seeking Continental refinement…

…and this ad from Talon, advertising zippers before the word “zipper” came into common use…

Garrett Price was the latest New Yorker cartoonist to pick up some extra cash from G. Washington instant coffee…

…while John Held Jr. even lent his image (along with some drawings) to promote Chase and Sanborn’s coffee…

…this artist for Spud cigarettes borrowed Carl Erickson’s style from his famed Camel ads (see examples below)…

…examples of Carl “Eric” Erickson’s Camel ads from the late 1920s…

…and here we have another New Yorker cartoonist, Rea Irvin, helping the makers of Murad cigarettes move their product…

…Irvin also illustrated this cartoon for the March 1 issue…

Reginald Marsh contributed these cartoons, no doubt based on a recent winter stay in sunny Havana (I’ve been to Sloppy Joe’s, and still looks pretty much like this)…

…back stateside, Peter Arno looked in on a cultural exchange…

…and we close with two from the issue by Barbara Shermund

Next Time: The Non-linear Man…

The Year of the Thurber

When the fifth anniversary issue of the New Yorker hit the newstands in February 1930, the magazine was also setting down another milestone: its first-ever publication of a James Thurber cartoon.

Feb. 22, 1930 cover by Rea Irvin.

Inserted into the top corner of page 25 (next to a short fiction piece by Emily Hahn), was Thurber’s first installment of his spoof on newspaper pet columns titled “Our Pet Department.”

Seeming a bit quizzical about his debut as a cartoonist, in February 1930 Thurber wrote to his friend Minnette Fritts Proctor (for whom he held lifelong romantic yearnings) that his drawings were “now coming into a strange sort of acclaim… The New Yorker is going to run a series of my animal pictures…and a concern wants me to do ads for it. Imagine!…I’m enclosing a few (pictures), which you can throw away. They’ll alarm you.”

PET WHISPERER…James Thurber, already well established as a writer at the New Yorker, made his debut as a cartoonist for the magazine in its fifth anniversary issue. The brilliant “Our Pet Department” would run through the spring in the 14 installments. (thurberhouse.org)

Animals of all sorts would pop up in Thurber’s cartoons throughout the 1930s (click image below to enlarge)

Clockwise from top left, cartoons from the following issues: Jan. 30, 1932; April 6, 1935; July 14, 1934; and Feb. 13, 1937.

…and his famous dogs would make frequent appearances, including on their own cover in 1946 to coincide with that year’s Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show…

Office mate, co-author and friend E.B. White, on the other hand, assumed his usual duty of marking the magazine’s anniversary in “Notes and Comment”…

FOOD FOR THOUGHT…As E.B. White pointed out in his “Notes and Comment,” there was another, earlier New Yorker published nearly a century earlier in the 1830s by Horace Greeley, who described his periodical as “A Weekly Journal of Literature, Politics, Statistics and General Intelligence.” Greeley published his New Yorker from 1834 to 1841. (rickgrunder.com)

…and contemplated his own magazine’s contributions to the advancement of civilization…

…and as E.B. White continued his tradition of marking the magazine’s anniversary, so too did Rea Irvin continue to mark the passage of time with a tip of the hat from Eustace Tilley…

…and most prominently the New Yorker marked each anniversary with a repeat of the original Rea Irvin cover (later with some slight alterations), a tradition that continued unbroken until 1994, when a series of parodied versions of Eustace Tilley began to appear on the cover. The classic Tilley cover reappeared in the 2000s and ran frequently during that decade, but sadly made its last appearance in 2011 (see below covers from the first issue and anniversary covers from 2011 and 2019). I hope to see the Irvin cover return next year, and most certainly for the 100th anniversary in 2025. You can read more about cover’s history in Michael Maslin’s indispensable Ink Spill.

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Drama Queen

Chinese opera star Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) was known as “Queen of Peking Opera” for his graceful stage portrayals of young and middle-aged women. Considered one of China’s greatest “Dan” performers (Dan is the general name for female roles), Mei had many admirers outside of China including Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who welcomed Mei to Hollywood when he toured the U.S. in 1930. The New Yorker paid Mei a visit during his stay at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, recounted in these excerpts from “The Talk of the Town”…

QUEEN OF PEKING OPERA, Mei Lanfang, circa 1920, and as a “Dan” in Chinese opera, circa 1930s. (people.chinesecio.com/Wikimedia)

HE’S A FAN…Charlie Chaplin greets Mei Lanfang during a 1930 visit to Hollywood. At right, Mei with his family in the early 1940s. (thatsmags.com/Wikipedia)

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A Kitty With Claws

“The Talk of the Town” also featured Kitty Marion (1871-1944) in a mini-profile. The German-born Marion moved to London at age 15, where she gained some prominence as a music hall singer. She found greater fame, however, as an activist, first standing up for the rights of fellow women performers and later crusading for voting rights. In response to attacks on women protestors by police officers, Marion embraced militant activism, throwing bricks through the windows of offices and handling a number of arson and bombing attacks that were intended to harm property, not people. Arrested numerous times (and enduring 232 force-feedings while on hunger strikes) she emigrated to the U.S. after World War I and joined forces with birth control advocate Margaret Sanger.  The New Yorker takes it from there…

TRANSATLANTIC ACTIVIST…A British Criminal Record Office mugshot of Kitty Marion, circa 1912; cover of Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review, November, 1923; Marion handing out copies of the Review on the streets of New York, 1915. (Wikipedia/Smith College/British Library)

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Going Deep With Noguchi

It’s hard to imagine modern decor without the influence of Isamu Noguchi, but before he inspired everything from coffee tables to lamps, he was a noted sculptor, and in 1930 he was best known for his portrait busts. New Yorker art critic Murdock Pemberton observed:

TWO HEADS ARE BETTER…Left to right, Isamu Noguchi’s portraits of architect/inventor Buckminster Fuller (1929, chrome-plated bronze) and the painter Marion Greenwood (1929, cast iron). Despite being three years short of the age requirement for a Guggenheim Fellowship, Noguchi was nevertheless awarded the grant to study stone and wood cutting and to gain “a better understanding of the human figure.” It appears the grant paid off handsomely. (noguchi.org/Smithsonian)
MODERN MASTER…Collection of Noguchi lamps available from the Noguchi Museum. At right, 1947 coffee table by Herman Miller, inspired by a 1939 Noguchi design. (noguchi.org/Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of Pond’s Cold Cream continued to roll out endorsements from  society figures, including a “Mrs. John Davis Lodge” (Francesca Bragiotti), described in this advertisement as possessing “starry wide dark eyes, hair golden as Melisande’s, and tea-rose skin”…

…for reference, Francesca Bragiotti’s wedding portrait, as featured in Vogue magazine, 1929…

…Doubleday Doran targeted the appropriate audience for its publication of The Second New Yorker Album, with cover illustration by Peter Arno

…and we have another lovely Camel ad from illustrator Carl “Eric” Erickson, who conjured up more Continental imagery as an inducement to take up a bad habit…

…in a recent post we looked at Don Dickerman, who operated themed restaurants in Greenwich Village. In the Feb. 22 issue he promoted his four restaurants in a series of ads (illustrated by Dickerman himself) that ran on four consecutive pages (72-75)…

…and Barbara Shermund illustrated this ad for Frigidare…

…Peck & Peck touted the “mannish lines” of its “Hillbilly” suits…

…no doubt influenced by trendsetters like Marlene Dietrich.

…and lest we forget that it’s 1930, a “Cowboys and Indians” mentality was rife in the advertising business, as seen in this ad from Mendel Trunx, proud of 20th century progress (“we’ve come a long way…”) and yet…well, read on…

…the mentality was still alive and well 30 years later, as seen in this ad from 1962…

…and coincidently, in the same issue we have this scene illustrated by Peter Arno mixing “Redskins” and luggage, in this case, a matron who means to summon the aid of a “red cap” baggage handler…

…other cartoons included this dramatic scene courtesy William Crawford Galbraith

…a rustic, slightly naughty woodcut by John Held Jr

…a peek at fashion trends by Helen Hokinson

…a look at social mores…from Alan Dunn

…and Alice Harvey

…and we end with Barbara Shermund, and a moment of art appreciation…

Next Time: Famous Friends…

 

 

 

 

 

Death Avenue Revisited

For nearly 100 years, giant steam locomotives (and later diesels) rumbled through the streets of Manhattan’s West Side, serving warehouses and industries via a route known as “Death Avenue.”

Jan. 18, 1930 cover by Constantin Alajalov (who apparently had just visited St. Moritz, home of the 1928 Winter Olympics).

Beginning in 1846, freight trains began operating at street level along 10th, 11th and 12th avenues. When mixed with an ever-growing crush of pedestrians, wagons, cars and trucks — hundreds were killed or mutilated, many of them schoolchildren. One of these streets, 10th Avenue, earned the moniker “Death Avenue” for its large share of fatalities. Although protests over the unsafe rail lines had been going on for decades, it wasn’t until 1929 that an agreement was reached to build an elevated rail system (which is now the popular High Line elevated park). In late December 1929 Mayor Jimmy Walker pried out the first spike at 11th Avenue and 60th Street. In “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White wryly observed:

GOOD OLD DAYS…Freight trains were introduced to the west side warehouse district in 1846. Block-long trains would run through cross streets and congested traffic, maiming and killing along the way (image at left circa 1920). At some point in the late 19th century trains were required to send a man ahead on horseback waving a red warning flag (see images at right, circa 1900); nevertheless, in the decade 1890-1900 nearly 200 deaths were recorded, mostly schoolchildren from nearby tenements. please click image to enlarge.
WESTSIDE COWBOYs…Clockwise, from top left, a steam locomotive rumbles down 11th Avenue near 41st Street in the 1920s; men on horseback, known as the West Side Cowboys, rode ahead of the trains to warn pedestrians. Image at top right is of cowboy William Connolly on 11th Avenue in 1932; the last ride — George Hayde led the final ride of the West Side cowboys up 10th Avenue on March 24, 1941; aerial view of the High Line from 18th Street heading north. Opened in 1934, the elevated track lifted most freight train traffic 30 feet in the air. Today the High Line serves as a mile-and-a-half-long elevated park, and is one of New York’s biggest tourist draws. (Forgotten NY/AP/NY Times/thehighline.org)

A New Yorker illustrator/cartoonist who spent a lot of time hanging around the working class neighborhoods on the West Side was Reginald Marsh. One of the first cartoonists employed by the New Yorker, Marsh was also a “Social Realist” painter who had studied with the Art Students League. The prevailing theme at the League was life among the working poor, the unemployed, and the homeless, especially after the market crash of 1929. For the Jan. 18 issue Marsh contributed this cartoon featuring a Death Avenue subject…

…more than two years earlier (the Nov. 5, 1927 issue) Marsh provided this illustration of life on Death Avenue…

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Birds of a Feather 

And speaking of the down and out, E.B. White commented on the thousands of panicked citizens who had flocked to the New York Life Insurance Company in search of some peace of mind under the wing of its leader Darwin P. Kingsley (1857-1932). Kingsley steered the company through the market crash relatively unscathed, thanks to its investments in government bonds and real estate, and not in common stocks.

DARWIN’S LAW…Darwin P. Kingsley saw the New York Life Insurance Company through the stock market crash. The company’s assets weathered the crash thanks to investments in government bonds and real estate, and not common stocks. At right, the New York Life Building at 51 Madison Avenue, designed by architect Cass Gilbert and opened in December 1928.(retropundit.wordpress.com)

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Oh Dear Me

As I’ve noted before, the New Yorker loved taking swipes at the New York Times, especially when the somewhat puritanical “Old Gray Lady” found it challenging to cover the more salacious side of life. In this case, according to E.B. White, it was the subject matter of a 1930 Broadway play Waterloo Bridge

LES BELLES IMPURES…Actress June Walker (pictured here circa 1920) portrayed chorus girl Myra Deauville in the 1930 Broadway play Waterloo Bridge. In the play Myra finds herself out of work and stuck in London during World War I. She resorts to, um, prostitution to support herself. (IBDB)

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Nerd Alert

White also got a kick from reading accounts (presumably in the Times) about Albert Einstein’s “lecture” at the American Museum of Natural History. According to the New York Times’ Michael Pollak (F.Y.I., Aug. 10, 2012), “an unruly crowd of 4,500 stampeded through the (museum) to see a movie about Einstein’s work…it became known — relatively speaking — as the Einstein riot.”

JUST CHILLIN’…Albert Einstein circa 1930. The scientist was safely elsewhere when a science-crazed mob stormed the doors of the American Museum of Natural History, which was screening a film on the theory of relativity. (AP)

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Not Ready For My Closeup

The actress Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) was a major star during the silent era who saw her career wane with the advent of the talkies, and then suddenly soar again with her unforgettable portrayal of reclusive silent film star Norma Desmond in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. In her profile of the actress, Helena Huntington Smith seemed to suggest that Swanson was something of an ugly duckling who managed to transcend her looks through a process of graceful maturation (Abe Birnbaum’s caricature notwithstanding). Some excerpts:

GLORIOUS FACES…Abe Birnbaum no doubt drew from images like these for his caricature of Gloria Swanson. From left, Swanson in a cloche hat in an undated photo; publicity photo for her 1928 film Sadie Thompson; publicity photo for 1929’s The Trespasser, Swanson’s first all-talking picture. (Pinterest/pixels.com)

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Good-Bye and Good Luck

Not too many 33 year olds write autobiographies, but then again Robert Graves was no typical 33-year-old. Good-Bye to All That, which Graves later described as “my bitter leave-taking of England,” was reviewed in the Jan. 18 “Recent Books” column. Note in the first paragraph how the reviewer (A.W.S.) suggested that writing about World War I (which ended less than 12 years earlier) was getting better “as the shock of the actual catastrophe wears off.” This is not unlike the writings (and films) about Viet Nam that began to emerge in the 1980s and 90s. An excerpt:

A LOT ON HIS MIND…from left, Robert Graves served in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in World War I (photo is probably from 1915); first edition of his autobiography Good-Bye to All That, which he published at age 33; Graves in 1935. (Oxford U/Wikipedia/fundaciorobertgraves.org)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with this elegant ad for a new art deco beauty salon at the Abraham & Straus department store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn…

…for reference, a photo of salon, from 1930…

…the Jan. 18 issue contained a slew of ads enticing New Yorkers to flee the winter and head south — smartly attired, of course — like the couple in the upper right hand corner who look fashionably disinterested as they head out for some “playtime” in Havana (love the man’s combo black tie and bucket hat)…

…and you have to hand it to the folks at Sterling, who put the chic into high-powered boat engines…

…this has to be one of the very few times, perhaps the only time, that a toilet seat was advertised in the New Yorker…note how the folks at the Church company played on consumers’ social anxieties, proffering the suggestion that an old toilet seat might be the one thing that lingers in the memories of your houseguests…

…of course a lot of people eased their anxieties by lighting up, something they didn’t have to worry about because they were told it was actually good for their health (the manufacturers of Old Golds, for example, claimed their cigarettes created a “smoke screen” that kept away colds and other “throat dangers”). Not to be left behind, the makers of Lucky Strikes claimed their “toasting” process removed “dangerous irritants”…

…speaking of Old Golds, cartoonist John Held Jr. picked up some extra pocket change with this “woodcut” illustration for the brand…

…as for Held’s fellow New Yorker cartoonists, we have some more social anxiety courtesy of Alan Dunn

…a bit of chit chat among society ladies…Barbara Shermund looked in on a pair down in Palm Springs…

…while Helen Hokinson found her ladies contemplating new economic realities…

…and finally we have Peter Arno, and a punch line that failed to land…

Next Time: Strike Up The Band!

A Backward Glance

With the 1920s ending with a crash, few seemed interested in looking back to that decade. Indeed, just days into the 1930s the Jazz Age seemed to belong to a distant, frivolous past.

Jan. 11, 1930 cover by Julian De Miskey.

Or at least that is how popular historian Alvin F. Harlow (1875-1963) saw it, penning this somewhat cynical, tongue-in-cheek retrospective on the “great events” of the previous year…

FLASHBACK…Historian Alvin F. Harlow (top left) recalled some of the “great events” of 1929, including (clockwise, from top right) “damnfool” dance marathons; “comic strip droolery” (clip is from Dixie Dugan, 1929); gang warfare; reckless air navigation and wayside wieneries. (jstor.org/News dog Media/nitrateville.com/Chicago/U of Washington/Nathan’s)

…Harlow continued to list the various ways folks sought relief “from the monotony of existence” in 1929…

TOO THIN?…Miss Austria, Lisl Goldarbeiter, was crowned the first Miss Universe at the “International Pageant of Pulchritude” in Galveston, Texas in 1929. The pageant actually was one of year’s big events, garnering worldwide attention. (bashny.net)

…as well as the persistence of superstition and quackery…

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A Byrd Takes Wing

In 1928 and 1929 the name Richard Byrd popped up quite a bit in the pages of the New Yorker, and for good reason. In 1928 Byrd — already known for his exploits at the North Pole — began his first expedition to the Antarctic, a land that was as remote to explorers in the 1920s as the moon was to us in the 1960s. On Nov. 28-29, 1929, Byrd — along with pilot Bernt Balchen, co-pilot/radioman Harold June, and photographer Ashley McKinley — flew a Ford Trimotor to the South Pole and back in 18 hours, 41 minutes. It was such a feat that Byrd was promoted to the rank of rear admiral by a special act of Congress on December 21, 1929, making the 41-year-old Byrd the youngest admiral in the history of the United States Navy. In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White was still awaiting details of the heroic adventure:

ROUGHING IT…Once the expedition arrived by ship on the Antarctic coast, planes were assembled at the “Little America” base camp on the Ross Ice Shelf. This image shows Richard Byrd and his dog Igloo unpacking crates. The ships that brought the plane and other supplies can be seen in the background. (library.osu.edu)
LIKE A MOONSHOT…Clockwise, from top left, a Ford Trimotor (named Floyd Bennett after the recently deceased pilot of a previous expedition) was one of three planes brought on the expedition. It sits assembled and ready to go before its historic flight over the Pole; flying over the pass near Liv’s Glacier enroute to the Pole; Richard Byrd in the library of Little America prior to the flight, with a stone from Floyd Bennett’s grave. Byrd dropped the stone, wrapped in a small American flag, over the South Pole in honor of the pilot of his 1926 North Pole expedition; the geological party (Byrd is second from right) upon returning to Little America, January, 1930; Little America in 1928, soon to be covered in snow. (library.osu.edu)

In his “Wayward Press” column, Robert Benchley commented on Byrd’s promotion, and took a shot at the New York Times (the Gray Lady was a favorite New Yorker target) for monopolizing the news of the South Pole expedition:

SNOWFALL OF A DIFFERENT SORT…Adm. Richard Byrd received a hero’s welcome in 1930 when he returned to the U.S. from Antarctica. Here he is shown being feted at a ticker tape parade in Boston. (library.osu.edu)

E.B. White also touted an endorsement by the venerable magazine The Nation, which included both Adm. Byrd and the New Yorker in its Honor Roll for 1929:

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Bitter and Sweet

“The Talk of the Town” looked in on English light opera actress Evelyn Laye (1900-1996), who had just arrived in town to make her Broadway debut in the American première of Noël Coward’s Bitter Sweet. “Talk” discovered that Laye “had her own notions” about how a stage actress should conduct herself:

MOSTLY SWEET…Postcard image of Evelyn Laye, circa 1933. (tuckdb.org)

Although Laye refused star billing in Bitter Sweet, she had no problem appearing in this two-page ad for Lux soap in the New Yorker’s Jan. 18. issue, hers the only full-page portrait in the ad:

…and so we segue into the ads for Jan. 11, where we find all sorts of diversions in the back pages, including an appeal to revelers for the Greenwich Village Ball (top left corner). The ad copy reads “come when you like, with whom you like—wear what you like…” and asks the question “Unconventional? Oh, to be sure—only do be discreet!”

…for reference, here is an invitation from the 1932 Greenwich Village Ball, with a list of patrons printed on the inside cover, including the “King of Greenwich Village Bohemians,” Maxwell Bodenheim, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s two sisters Norma and Kathleen

(hobohemiadotblog.wordpress.com)

…ads for private airplanes were a regular feature in the New Yorker, aviation companies assuming that at least some readers had the means to consider such a purchase…the copy in this ad emphasized the ease of flying — here is a sample from the fifth paragraph: “You take off…leave the ground in 6 seconds…climb so swiftly you are 500 feet as you pass over the fringe of the flying field…and 500 feet higher before you finish lighting a cigarette…”

…here’s a better view of the Ireland Amphibion…

(San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

…but for those who remained firmly on the ground, respite could be found in a nice, quiet (and affordable) office, a place where one could, perhaps, start rebuilding from the ashes of the market crash…

…and for those with a little extra scratch, they could treat themselves to the patrician comforts of a nice bathroom…

…on to our comics, we have a nice little culture clash courtesy of Barbara Shermund

Carl Rose illustrated a clash of a different sort…

John Held Jr. was back with one of his slightly naughty “engravings” — these were favorites of founding editor Harold Ross, with his rustic tastes…

W.P. Trent explored the strange ways of social status…

Jack Markow looked in on life on the skids, a theme that would become more frequent as the Depression deepened…

…and after thirty installments throughout 1929, Otto Soglow’s manhole series — a one-panel gag featuring dialogue from unseen workers Joe and Bill…

…came to an end when Joe and Bill finally emerged…

Next Time: Death Avenue Revisited…

Race to the Sky

Almost 90 years after the lights went out on the Roaring Twenties, our collective imagination of New York City still harks back to that time…the sights and sounds of nightclubs and speakeasies and Broadway lights set to the tune of the Jazz Age.

Oct. 12, 1929 cover by Adolph K. Kronengold.

And no wonder, since that decade made the city what it is today. Changing social mores, along with labor-saving electrical appliances and the ubiquitous automobile, altered the tempo of life. And this quickened pace was also reflected in the built environment, old landmarks reduced to rubble while gleaming skyscrapers rose up in their place seemingly overnight. A Victorian edifice like the Waldorf-Astoria — little more than 30 years old — seemed positively ancient to Jazz Age New Yorkers, who unceremoniously knocked it down to make way for what would become the city’s most iconic landmark.

New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka “T-Square”) sensed that something big was on the horizon with his regular “Sky Line” updates on the city’s “tallest-building-in-the-world” contest. In the Oct. 12, 1929 issue he looked on admiringly as the Chrysler Building’s distinctive dome began to take shape:

IT’LL BE A SURPRISE…The Chrysler Building still lacked its gleaming art deco dome in this photo taken in the fall of 1929. At left is the Chanin Building, completed earlier that year. (adamunderhill.wordpress.com)

Chappell observed that the Chrysler Building’s claim as the world’s tallest would be short-lived, as plans for the Waldorf-Astoria site called for a much taller structure…

DOOMED…The old Waldorf-Astoria hotel (left), completed in 1897, was scarcely more than 30 years old when it was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building. The former governor of New York, Al Smith (inset) led the corporation that knocked down the old hotel and erected the world’s tallest building on the site. Demolition of the hotel began on October 1, 1929 (images at right). In his 2014 book The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark, John Tauranac observes the demolition was an arduous process, as the hotel had been constructed using more rigid material than what was found in earlier buildings. Those materials — granite, wood, and metals such as lead, brass, and zinc — were not in high demand. Most of the wood was deposited into a woodpile on nearby 30th Street or burned in a swamp. Other materials, including the granite and bronze, were dumped into the Atlantic near Sandy Hook, NJ. (New York Historical Society/New York Public Library Digital Gallery)
RISING FROM THE RUBBLE…The Empire State Building under construction in 1930. When completed in 1931, the 1,250 foot (1,454 with antenna) building would claim the title as the world’s tallest. It was something of a definitive victory, as the building held that record for nearly 40 years. (travelandleisure.com)

Although Al Smith’s building seemed assured to win the “world’s tallest” title, another giant was taking shape on the drawing boards…

LAND OF THE GIANTS…City Bank-Farmers Trust Building (left), now known as 20 Exchange Place, was originally designed in 1929 to be the world’s tallest building at 846 feet, but the realities of the Depression brought it down to a more modest 741 feet, making it the fourth-tallest building in New York when it was completed in 1931. At right, the 22-year-old Century Theatre on Central Park West was demolished to make way for Irwin Chanin’s Century Apartments, also completed in 1931. (Museum of the City of New York/nyc-architecture.com)

…while we are on the subject of skyscrapers, the New Yorker reprinted this illustration by Andre De Schaub to fill in a space at the bottom of page 54 in the Oct. 12 issue…

…the drawing originally appeared in the magazine three years earlier, as a cartoon in the October 16, 1926 issue. It included a caption: “High position on Wall Street” (thanks to Michael Maslin’s invaluable Ink Spill for helping me track this one down)…

As the demolition crews picked apart the old Waldorf, E.B. White wondered why more fanfare wasn’t attached to such occasions, whether they be demolitions or ribbon-cuttings…

NEEDS MORE HOOPLA…Al Smith with his wife Catherine Dunn Smith, and two of his grandchildren at the opening ceremony of the Empire State Building, May 1, 1931. President Herbert Hoover officially dedicated the building by pressing a button in the White House that turned on the building’s lights (it was merely symbolic; they were actually turned on by some unknown maintenance worker in New York). (Museum of the City of New York)

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A Novel Idea

My last post featured a brief excerpt of an Oct. 5 theater review by Robert Benchley, who sized up Elmer Rice’s new play, See Naples and Die. Rice pops up again in the Oct. 12 issue, this time as the author of A Voyage to Purilia, the first novel serialized in the New Yorker. The novel was a satire on the silent film industry, set in the fictional land of Purilia. Here is the first page of the piece, with illustrations provided by Peter Arno:

SENDING UP THE SILENTS…Elmer Rice in 1920; his satirical novel about the silent film industry, A Voyage to Purilla, was serialized in the New Yorker in 1929 and published the following year. It was re-published in the 1950s as a science fiction novel. (Wikipedia/Amazon)

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Siren Song

Writer and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes trained his discerning eye on the famed torch singer and speakeasy denizen Helen Morgan, attempting to understand the hard-living singer’s allure…

Helen Morgan, circa 1930. (masterworksbroadway.com)

RIGHT AT HOME…Helen Morgan made the draped-over-the-piano look of a torch singer her signature style. (Pinterest.UK)
LIGHTING UP BROADWAY…Helen Morgan (left) as Julie LaVerne in the original Broadway cast of Show Boat, 1927. It was her best-known role. At right, Morgan in Applause, 1929. (Pinterest/IMDB)

Seldes struggled to understand Morgan’s appeal, which seemed to draw from an assemblage of personas…

PLUMBING EMOTIONAL DEPTHS…Helen Morgan and Rudy Vallee in Sweet Music, 1935. (IMDB)

Seldes concluded that Morgan belonged with other artistic greats in her ability to create a sense of expectancy…

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The Invention of Distracted Driving

Writing in his “Motors” column, Nicholas Trott noted the advent of the car radio, a “new complication” to an “already over-elaborate existence.” Note that Trott viewed the car radio as something to be listened to while parked — car radios were fairly controversial back then, akin to driving while texting today.

EASY TO INSTALL…New Yorker automotive critic Nicholas Trott observed that cars were now being wired to receive radio sets (you still had to buy one and install it yourself). The system above featured battery-powered vacuum tubes, a dash-mounted dial and mono speaker. (hemmings.com)

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From Our Advertisers

To the refined owner of a Pierce-Arrow, a car radio would have been a crass novelty. After all, your driver was there to drive, and listen to your orders…

…unlike the Pierce-Arrow, which took pride in its heritage, the folks at Chrysler were known for their forward-thinking in design and technical innovation…

…on to some of the back page ads, we find appeals to flee the oncoming winter and escape to the golden sands of Waikiki…note the second ad, and its rather democratic invitation…

…and then we have the ads that hoped to catch the eye of the grasping Francophile, with delicacies from Louis Sherry or mock bubbly from the makers of applesauce…the second ad is particularly heartbreaking, the copy writer trying his or her best to conjure the glamour of Champagne from a bottle of apple juice. Zut!…

…fake Champagne isn’t for you? Well Leonard Dove offers us a salesman doing his best to sell a bottle of mock gin…

…returning to the ads, here’s one more from the back pages that references Harold Ross’s original prospectus for his magazine: “The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” The ad is for Billy Minsky’s National Winter Garden, where the art of burlesque got its start. Despite the cheapness of the ad and the implied salaciousness, uptown New Yorkers loved “slumming” at Minsky’s burlesque, including artists and writers (Hart Crane even wrote a poem called “National Winter Garden”). No doubt a few New Yorker staffers found their way inside as well…

Clockwise from top left, Billy Minsky’s National Winter Garden; a 1920’s burlesque performer; a ticket for two to the show. (New York Post/Amazon/Pinterest)

…on to the illustrators and cartoonists, a nice street scene by Reginald Marsh

John Held Jr. contributed one of his famed “woodcuts” to the Oct. 12 issue. Held was an old childhood friend of New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. It was Ross who encouraged Held to deviate from his popular flapper caricatures — he recalled how his friend had produced clever woodcuts in high school, and wanted something similar for his magazine…

A John Held Jr. illustration for Life magazine, 1927. (Library of Congress)

Peter Arno went behind the scenes at a posh nightclub (a setting Arno was very familiar with)…

Helen Hokinson found confusion at the elections…

Perry Barlow offered up this sweet slice of family life…

…and Denys Wortman illustrated the power of the pen…

Next Time: City of Glass…

White Shadows of the South Seas

Thirty years before South Pacific would grace the silver screen, an earlier film that also explored the clash of civilizations in Polynesia, White Shadows of the South Seas, wowed audiences with its cinematography and, like South Pacific, a melodramatic love story between an American (Monte Blue) and a beautiful Polynesian girl, Fayaway, played by Mexico-born actress Raquel Torres.

August 11, 1928 cover by Peter Arno.

Inspired by a 1919 travel book of the same name (by Frederick O’Brien), what is significant about the film is that it was shot in Tahiti, featured a supporting cast of Tahitian islanders, and was the first MGM picture to be released with a pre-recorded soundtrack, which consisted of a musical score and a few effects. It was also the first film in which the MGM Lion (known then as “Jackie”), roared during the introduction.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE…Raquel Torres and Monte Blue in White Shadows in the South Seas. (Pinterest)

Leonard Maltin writes the film “features stunning, Oscar-winning cinematography of the Marquesas Islands welded to a story about the corrupting influence of Western civilization, with Blue as an alcoholic doctor who falls in love with native Torres and clashes with an exploitative (pearl) trader…Portions of the beautiful, documentary-style footage were shot under the supervision of Robert Flaherty, who fought with the studio over its emphasis on a melodramatic plot and left the production.”

The film also caused David O. Selznick, one of the top executives at MGM, to quit the studio over a dispute with fellow MGM exec Hunt Stromberg. According to the 1990 book The Dame in the Kimono by Leonard Left and Jerold Simmons, David (Selznick) thought it an idyllic story, Hunt wanted more sex.

Here’s what the Aug. 11, 1928 New Yorker had to say about the film:

GOING NATIVE…Raquel Torres as Fayaway in White Shadows in the South Seas. (torontofilmsociety.org)
HE ROARS AT LAST…A cameraman and a sound technician record Jackie’s roar for MGM’s famous logo in 1928. The footage was first used on MGM’s first talking picture, White Shadows in the South Seas, as seen at right. (MGM)
WHILE WE ARE ON THE SUBJECT…Five different lions have been used for the MGM logo. Pictured above is Lion #1, named “Slats,” seated next to a less than enthusiastic Greta Garbo in this publicity photo from 1925. Slats was never heard, his career limited to the silent era. Slats was followed by Jackie, the first lion to roar on film (through the use of a gramophone synched to the movie). Jackie was followed by Tanner, George, and finally, Leo. (martinturnbull.com)

Speaking of Garbo, the New Yorker’s film critic “O.C.” was one of the few moviegoers in the world not bewitched by the Swedish actress. In the same issue this is what he had to say about her latest film, The Mysterious Lady:

CHANNELING HER INNER WALLOP…Greta Garbo in The Mysterious Lady, 1928. (Pinterest, uncredited)

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Revisiting Race

As I’ve noted before, The New Yorker of the 1920s was decidedly mainstream in its treatment of blacks and other minorities as racial “others.” Here is an example (from the Aug. 11 issue) of the casual bigotry that occasionally could be found in “The Talk of the Town,” this penned by none other than James Thurber:

…and a few pages on in the same issue, this filler art by Julian deMiskey:

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And to close out the Aug. 11 issue, Barbara Shermund looked in on the Uppers during a moment of contemplation:

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The Aug. 18, 1928 issue featured an interesting dispatch from the magazine’s Paris correspondent, Janet “Genêt” Flanner.

August 18, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

Flanner gave us a taste of how the French regarded the recent “Battle of the Century” between heavyweight boxers Gene Tunney and Tom Heeney:

Flanner also wrote about an amusement park near the Porte Maillot in Paris called Luna Park:

WITH A FRENCH ACCENT…Entrance to Luna Park near the Porte Maillot, circa 1922. (Wikipedia)

Postcard image of the Luna Park’s river ride, circa 1910. (paris-unplugged.fr )
Postcard image of Luna’s Roulette Wheel ride, recalling similar ride at Coney Island’s Pavilion of Fun. (paris-unplugged.fr )
Photographer snaps a photo of visitors to Porte Maillot in 1935. Although the banner on plane reads “Souvenir de Luna Park,” the park itself closed in 1931. (parisenimages.fr )

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From Our Advertisers

Another sports celebrity who didn’t mind relieving Old Gold of some extra cash was Babe Ruth, who was next in line to submit to the blindfold test:

I include this ad for Proctor & Gamble’s Ivory Soap (from a 1928 issue of The Saturday Evening Post) as an explanatory note for the New Yorker cartoon that follows, by Gluyas Williams…

Also in the issue, John Held Jr. contributed one of his famous maps, displayed sideways, full-page (click to enlarge):

And finally, we close with Peter Arno, and two outraged spinsters:

Next Time: Hit of the Century…